Together with Will and Christian Aid’s Chief Executive Loretta Minghella, I spoke at last night’s private viewing at the Oxo Tower. So I’m posting a version of that speech here, outlining my enthusiasm for online video stories and my approach when making the film on former LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) child-soldier Norman Okello below.
… the fundamentals of good storytelling are still the same as they always have been.
With the public’s growing appetite for short online videos, there are new opportunities for development agencies like Christian Aid to engage people with big issues. Some of these videos go viral and have the potential to inspire change by examining areas of concern and provoking debate. Added to this altered landscape are new technologies that see quality filmmaking cameras getting smaller and cheaper. Video journalists like myself can now work independently without the need of a large crew, taking cameras into often demanding or sensitive environments to bring stories to public attention via the internet.
Such technological innovations are to be welcomed but the fundamentals of good storytelling are still the same as they always have been. So when Christian Aid approached me with the idea of making a short film about Norman Okello, a former child soldier with the Lords Resistance Army (LRA), I concerned myself less with the equipment that I would use than with research and the challenges of telling a story about someone I had never met and whose background was so very different from my own. Overcoming these differences was key, requiring both sensitivity and time. I knew that I had to build a trust with Norman so that he would feel comfortable expressing his emotions on camera. By revealing his feelings, I hoped Norman would arouse empathy in an audience and so engage them in an issue that might otherwise be considered distant or obscure.
I wanted Norman Okello feel comfortable so I chose to interview him in a secluded woodland close to his family home.
Working with Christian Aid’s Emma Wigley, I interviewed Norman for about five hours over several sessions interspersed among our shooting-schedule. I decided to conduct the interviews beneath a small collection of trees beside Norman’s childhood home. I wanted Norman to avoid any sense of inhibition so we made sure he was out of earshot of his family, but close enough to them to feel comfortable and secure.
Over time Norman’s reservations subsided and he revealed details of his traumatic childhood and expressed the frustration of reconciling his past life with the present. He explained his desire to be a productive member of society and to realise his potential as a dutiful son, a loving husband and a responsible father.
Norman enjoys time with friends in the town of Kitgum, Uganda, close to his family home.
Norman’s candour is unusual in post-conflict Uganda. It is uncommon to find people discussing their own anxieties, particularly with strangers. Most are either too busy struggling to provide for the basic needs of their family or they are uneasy expressing opinions about a recent conflict that has left many scars.
It is impossible for a film of less than eight minutes to digest a complex issue like the northern Ugandan conflict between the LRA and the Government of Uganda. But by focussing on one individual, I hope that audiences come away from this film appreciating that conflicts in apparently distant lands involve ordinary people like Norman. It is far more difficult to dismiss events in other parts of the world as irrelevant to our own lives if we identify with individuals and relate our own circumstances to theirs.
Storm clouds gather in northern Uganda. Another still from my film about Norman Okello.
The conflict between the Ugandan Government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) saw thousands killed and at least 1.9 million people displaced, many of them forced into dangerous, insanitary “protected villages” run by the government where up to 1,000 people died every week. As the war unfolded, over 20,000 children were abducted and recruited into the LRA. My film above looks at the life of former LRA child-soldier Norman Okello who grapples with the legacy of a traumatic childhood during which he was both a victim and a perpetrator of violence.
The northern Ugandan war had its roots in the legitimate economic and political grievances of the marginalised Acholi people who live in northern Uganda. Joseph Kony and others in the leadership of the LRA exploited this grievance to further their own political and military ambitions. The opportunistic Kony used a warped interpretation of Christianity to secure credibility and build a cult-like following among some but he ultimately failed in his efforts to win the support of the wider Acholi population.
Rejecting the LRA but wary of the Kampala government’s motives for pursuing war in their northern Ugandan homeland, the Acholi people found themselves caught between two often-brutal forces. Mutilation, rape and murder were used to terrorise and control the civilian population.
Emerging from this 20-year conflict was never going to be easy. Ugandan-based Christian Aid partners, the Refugee Law Project (RLP) recognise that building peace in Uganda requires that crimes of the past be properly documented. My second video follows the RLP’s Deo Komakech as he records testimony among a community whose voice has been largely ignored. Deo listens as ordinary people reveal to him “secrets that were hidden in my heart.” And so begins a tentative process that is fundamental to any hopes of building a stable and secure society. As Deo says, Uganda must confront its past “in order to move forward and have a sustained peace.”
I have just uploaded a gallery of my corporate photographs here. Like many photographers, I combine my editorial work with assignments for business and corporate clients. I have been fortunate that much of this work has allowed me to travel abroad extensively, occasionally picking up editorial assignments once the corporate photography is over. Such work also has the benefit of subsidising the kind of self-assigned photography that the under-resourced press are too-often reluctant to commission.
Sometimes a corporate brief can be very specific and limit me to producing a particular kind of photograph. But on occasion clients do provide me a much freer reign within which to work. Such assignments are usually the most rewarding, allowing me to employ many of the skills I have developed while working editorially for newspapers and other media organisations.
I was recently in Mumbai as the monsoon arrived there on its march towards Delhi and the northern plains. Mumbai has suffered from its fair share of flooding in recent years. In July 2005, an incredible 944mm fell over the course of a 24-hour period. There is of course a persistent fear that such a deluge might occur again. But I witnessed only a stoical sense of business-as-usual when the first drops of rain fell and the cruel summer sun at last fell behind dark clouds.